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Trials and Tribulations for Iraqi Judges

They investigate cases but do not preside over them. They're probing, impassioned -- and under threat. They say they won't be deterred.

August 09, 2004|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — As he squared off against Saddam Hussein during a world-televised hearing last month, Judge Raid Juhi found himself on the defensive with a demand from the defiant former dictator: Who gave Juhi the right to sit in judgment?

You did, the young jurist replied.

"I told him that Saddam Hussein himself had signed my judicial decree," Juhi recalled with a smile during a recent interview in his Baghdad office.

The 33-year-old judge -- who worked as a prosecutor for 10 years under Hussein's regime and was tapped to help build the war-crimes case against the former president -- is part of a small, aggressive team of Iraqis who make up the investigative arm of the nation's top criminal court.

Launched in earnest about six months ago, the division is quickly proving itself to be an energetic and determined federal prosecutor, ruffling feathers of high-profile Iraqis, rebuffing daily death threats and vowing to pursue cases of corruption, murder and terrorism wherever they lead.

"The future of our country depends on the strength of this court," said Judge Zuhair Maliky, chief investigative judge of the Central Criminal Court of Iraq. "It's critical to establishing a free democratic Iraq for our children."

The division, with judges such as Maliky and Juhi functioning as U.S. attorneys do in the American justice system, hasn't hesitated to tackle large or sensitive investigations.

Maliky faced the wrath of several members of the former Iraqi Governing Council when he ordered the May raids on the house and offices of Ahmad Chalabi, then a council member, in connection with fraud and kidnapping investigations involving his party. Council members insisted that they should have been consulted before the raids, but Maliky was equally insistent that no one deserved special privileges.

Critics have questioned the validity of the court, calling it a puppet of the United States and accusing it of abusing its investigative powers.

"We have questions about the legality of the entire CCCI," said Zaab Sethna, spokesman for Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress party.

Luqman Thabit Zargawi, chief judge of the criminal court, defended the independence and integrity of his judges, who investigate cases but do not preside over them in court. Zargawi spent 22 years as a judge under the old regime until he was fired for refusing to obey an order from Hussein to sentence a prostitute to death, a penalty he considered too harsh.

He described the investigative court's mission as pursuing cases that are too controversial for smaller, regional courts to handle. "A judge who is afraid can't do his work," Zargawi said.

The criminal court is based in a cavernous former museum in Baghdad that once showcased gifts to Hussein from foreign dignitaries, such as solid-gold AK-47s and precious copies of the Koran.

A corner of the building is devoted to half a dozen twentysomething attorneys who investigate cases, interview witnesses and examine evidence. There are no computers, typewriters or filing cabinets, only bare desks and some office chairs still covered in protective plastic.

Prosecutors handwrite reports and use carbon-copy paper because there is no copier. The most modern piece of office equipment is a bottle of white-out, which everyone shares.

Security is tight and bodyguards stand watch outside judges' chambers. Death threats are common. Gunmen attacked Maliky's car in June.

Maliky bristles at the security measures he must take because he says it sends the wrong message to the public. "People should be able to see that someone can prosecute big cases and still have a normal life and be part of the community," he said.

Juhi has survived several assassination attempts and had to move out of his home for safety. "My movement is very limited," he said.

The pressure of their work can be intense. As Juhi prepared to face Hussein in the July 1 hearing, he kept reminding himself that the man before him should be treated like any other defendant.

"Every judge has his own way of dealing with things," Juhi said. "I don't deal with feelings. I don't look at the names. I deal with evidence and the crimes committed."

Before Juhi was selected to preside over the Hussein proceeding, he was best known as the judge who issued the arrest warrant for militant cleric Muqtada Sadr in the killing of a rival religious leader. He also prosecuted the former governor of Najaf for stealing funds.

The Chalabi investigations have been particularly controversial. After the raids on Chalabi's home and office, Maliky faced a barrage of criticism that he had been too quick to issue search and arrest warrants. Some Governing Council members publicly questioned whether there was sufficient evidence to search Chalabi's residence because the case involved lower-level employees of Chalabi's party, not Chalabi himself.

On Sunday, Maliky announced arrest warrants for Ahmad Chalabi and his nephew, Salem.

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